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Live Review and Photos: Low, September 20, 2011, El Rey – Los Angeles, CA

Photos by Philip Cosores

After nine albums and approaching two decades since their formation, it’s safe to say that Low are one of those bands that have always been around and have always been respected, even if they’ve never been as popular as countless bands that have come and gone in the meantime. Unfortunately, respect doesn’t attract people as much as hype, and with Bon Iver playing across town there was visibly a lot of spare space at the El Rey for the Minnesota band’s performance. However, this didn’t really matter, since the other thing that 18 years of performing brings you is a level of professionalism that can only be gained from countless years on the road, and Low showed a that in their tight and emotional performance and good humour throughout the night, earning them plenty of adulation from the crowd.

To warm up the people who made the outing was Bachelorette, the stage name of New Zealand native Annabel Alpers. I think we have a natural inclination to be amazed by anyone who can successfully loop guitar, effects, and vocals and create something multi-layered on the spot seemingly effortlessly. Alpers did this well throughout her set, and the dancier tracks with a lot of kick certainly stuck out. However, I also think that we have a natural inclination to start to find this thing a little tedious when – to the layperson merely spectating – the performer is doing the same trick over and over again. Bachelorette’s set suffered a little from this, and it was probably worse given the fact that the crowd were there to see a rock band – not that the politeness of the audience ever waned. Perhaps Alpers sensed the vibe since for her penultimate song she decided to make a last minute change and perform a more guitar-based song. Transposing a bedroom project on to the stage is never an easy task, and while Alpers has absolutely no problem in performing her songs well, she may have to take some time to consider how to maintain interest over the length of a supporting slot set.

Low are currently on tour supporting their new album C’mon, and predictably the set drew largely from it, including the starting number “Nothing But Heart.” The song is the longest track on the album at more than eight minutes and starting in such a manner may seem surprising, but for Low it is auspicious. It takes its time in setting out the blueprint of what Low do time and time again so well. Many bands can perform a song with a slow build with a rock-out at its peak, but nobody does it as slowly, patiently, and intricately as Low, and by the time full volume is reached you haven’t realised how you got there. You just know that it’s loud. For Low, there is not often a concluding rock out, the build is the rock out, and the way they tease it out makes it as thrilling as anything you can experience live. Not all of their songs were like this; a pair of thumping numbers from 2005’s The Great Destroyer, “Monkey” and “Canada,” could be termed ‘rockers’, but when picturing a Low crowd they can be thought of as the songs where they stopped swaying from side to side and started moving a little more vertically, particularly by bobbing their heads.

On top of this, the band’s vocal performances are stellar. Alan Sparhawk sings lead most of the time, but any time his wife Mimi Parker joins in her breathtaking vocals more or less steal the show, and many of the sets highlights were occasions when she took lead vocal such as “Especially Me” and “Shame.” The mix was perfect and their lyrical prowess shone through. “Sunflower,” the opening track from their opus Things We Lost In The Fire was twice as heartbreakingly beautiful in the flesh, with both Sparhawk and Parker’s harmonised vocals dripping with poignancy. “Done,” at under three minutes, almost felt like an interlude in the set, but the powerful exclamation from Sparhawk of “I’m weary and stumbling in the desert heat where raindrops they burn up before they reach your cheeks… and if you see my love tell her I’m done,” backed by little more than vocals of his bandmates was the definition of powerful – it was a show-stopping moment.

Having already pleased hardcore fans by playing b-side “Hand So Small,” Low went one step further by allowing the audience to make requests in the encore. Of course, as happens whenever bands do this, they get bombarded with requests that they can’t understand what’s being said or that are so obscure that they no longer know how to play them. After a minute or so of this, Sparhawk decided fuck it and they just burst into “Last Snowstorm of the Year,” which went down beautifully. Following this they played by far the oldest song of the night “Shame,” from 1995’s Long Division and then tried again with requests. Upon hearing multiple shouts for “Dinosaur Act” they obliged, and then finished the night in a similar way to how they started; with long, slow builder “When I Go Deaf.”

Low had nothing left to prove to any of the people in attendance, but their performance reinforced all the reasons why their fans adore them; their vibrance, their dedication and their downright quality. I don’t know how any of the other countless performances simultaneously going on across Los Angeles were, but I have no doubts about saying that anybody not in attendance at El Rey missed out.

Low set list:

Nothing But Heart
Hand so Small
You See Everything
Try To Sleep
Silver Rider
Especially Me
Violent Past

Last Snowstorm of the Year
Dinosaur Act
When I Go Deaf

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